“Fight Club” meets “The Karate Kid” in the dark, savage, and absurd satire of toxic masculinity, “The Art of Self-Defense.” This movie is brimming with exactly the kind of offbeat, deadpan humor that I love. It’s the type of film that will make your skin crawl as you simultaneously laugh and feel sick at the twisted punch lines, all while questioning your overall mental state in the process.
After he’s attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality, and hyper-masculinity that will change his life forever.
The movie is awkward and inconsistent, but just like our antihero, it starts to really pack a punch as the story progresses. The ideas of modern American masculinity are turned upside down and critiqued with a satirical brutality with writer / director Riley Stearns‘s macho exploration of gender roles in society. There’s much to be dissected and explored within the movie’s multiple layers, and it’s something cinema students will likely discuss for years to come.
The film is over the top, but in the most scholarly way. It’s inconsistent, but the overall morbid, bleak tone keeps it relevant in today’s admittedly violent culture. It’s alarming that “The Art of Self-Defense” isn’t as shocking as you’d think, which perhaps says it all.